There comes a point at which the helpfulness of technology becomes a form of oppression: walled gardens, predictive services making the wrong predictions, and every social platform forcing us to use our real names. It’s cute when it’s small, but what happens when self-driving cars can collude with the cops? — The Eds.
I was just trying to get to Cambridge from downtown Boston, go see my friend. Should have taken twenty minutes with traffic. I didn’t want to take the T, not with the kinds of chemical sniffers they’d been setting up at the entry. I didn’t know if they could smell graff supplies.
So I downloaded that new app, registered it to a pre-paid Visa, and called for a Taxy.
The summer sun cut through the heavy, humid air. People around me were yelling, because that’s what people do in the city, they yell.
The Taxy rolled up to the curb, matte black. It looked liked it wanted to disappear into the night, even in the day. What hacker doesn’t want to roll in a matte black self-driving car?
I got into the passenger seat. There wasn’t a driver seat. I pulled on the safety harness, two shoulder belts that clipped together right in front of my navel. The AC was blasting, and I held my hands up to the vent to let the cold air blow the sweat right off me.
“Hello, Nic,” it said. Like, out of the dashboard, but over on the driver side. As if there were a driver.
“Hey,” I said.
It cut out from the curb and back into traffic, deferring to human-driven cars but damned aggressive amongst the rest of the automated vehicles. It stopped for people at crosswalks and corners. Just yesterday, Jae had told me that self-driving cars just equated cell phones with people, in order to navigate through dense crowds. Jae was always going on like that; she cared more about the insides of machines than people. I liked hanging out with her anyway. Introverts are great: you can spend the night without them trying to sleep with you.
After two turns, the Taxy already looked like it it was heading the wrong direction.
“This isn’t the way I usually take,” I said. “You redirecting to avoid traffic or something?”
“I regret to inform you that your destination has been marked as a location of potential interest to the police.”
I went for the safety harness release. It wouldn’t let go.
“The fuck you talking about?”
“This police district requests all principal transportation providers to log passenger information of those traveling to and from specific locations. While customer privacy is of the utmost importance to us, we at Taxy are both required and proud to uphold our legal responsibilities.”
“So why you driving the wrong way?”
“Unfortunately, the information provided in your account with Taxy does not match any existing police records. A request has been made to transport you to the station so they may identify you before we may proceed to your destination. Your account will not be charged for the additional time and distance. This matter is not criminal, and you are not facing charges or fines.”
“Unlock my seatbelt.” I’d be facing charges and fines soon enough if the cops took a look into my purse. Unregistered phone, paint pens. I ripped at the straps, but of course they were designed to hold up to a lot more force than I could manage with just my hands.
“Taxy would like to apologize for any inconvenience or delay.”
“Aww hell no,” I said. I got out my multitool, flipped open the knife, and started into one of the shoulder belts up where it connected to the seat beside my head. It was hard going—the webbing was reinforced with steel mesh. I had to switch over to the pliers, go at it strand by strand.
“All Taxy vehicles have been certified to the highest standard of customer safety. Our patented safety harnesses meet or exceed gold standard.”
“Don’t give me that shit. I know the difference between tensile strength and shear strength, you autobot-fucker.” You could make a strap hard to snap without making it hard to cut.
We’d made it into the robot-only lane and the car was picking up speed. I didn’t have long before I was going to be looking at a year for graffiti paraphernalia, and I wouldn’t put it past them to slap on intent to vandalize.
“In my communications with the officers, I’ve realized you managed to fill out your Taxy registration without indicating a gender. What pronoun would you prefer I use to refer to you?”
“Are you kidding me, HAL? You want to know my pronoun preference?”
“We here at Taxy strive to provide the best possible experience for all of our customers regardless of their respective gender identities.”
“I don’t even have a fucking gender!”
“Your preference for the pronoun ‘they’ has been registered.”
I cut through the last wire on one strap of my harness and started to weasel my way out.
“I regret to inform you that you will be held financially liable for any damage you cause to Taxy property. Your actions will be reviewed, and if they are deemed malicious, they will be treated as criminal.”
I was free from the harness. Leaned back in my seat, started kicking at the glass. Didn’t do any good. I pulled my tanktop off and wrapped it around my hand. I pummeled at the glass with my closed pliers. But the glass was tempered, likely meant to take bullets.
Taxy was the safest vehicle in the world.
I opened the glove box. Empty but for some courtesy mints. Searched the back seat. Nothing else in the damn car.
Alright. It was a technical problem. I just needed to solve it, or I’d spend six months in some privatized prison that wouldn’t be quite so accommodating of gender differences as Taxy. Hell, I’d miss my sister’s graduation just waiting for trial.
It was fine. I’d figure it out. Just had to keep my breath under control, keep panic at bay.
I went through my phone, found Jae. Covered the screen of the phone from any camera in the ceiling, then opened up a secure text app.
“your damn house is tagged”
I saw those three dots right away. She was already typing back. That girl lived on her phone, I swear.
“what do you mean, tagged?”
“taxy is taking me to the cops because i told it to take me to your place”
My phone started ringing, right off. I answered.
“Why in the fucking name of christ’s personal hell did you tell a robot car to take you to my place?”
Usually, I liked Jae’s voice. Kind of gravelly and charming. Wasn’t charming just then.
“Why the fuck wouldn’t I?”
“Because sometimes people like us break the law,” Jae said.
“Help me get out of here.”
“Just roll with it and keep your mouth shut. We’ll get you a lawyer.”
“Fuck that, Jae. Send a drone or something, usual access code. I’ll figure it out.”
She took a deep breath in. She didn’t like my plan, didn’t like me dragging her into it, either.
“Where are you?”
“I’m on Soldier’s Field Road. I think it’s taking me to the robot-only bridge.”
But I wasn’t sure if Jae heard that, because my service cut out.
“Fuck!” I started hitting the dash with my fists. “Fuck fuck fuck!”
“I regret to inform you that, upon review, your destructive actions have been deemed potentially criminal. Owing to arrest protocol, outside communications have been disabled.”
A deployable Faraday cage, woven into the frame of the vehicle’s cabin. Blocked cell signals. Luxury cars advertised it as a family road trip feature, presumably for families that hated their kids.
Boston was rushing by way too fast. On the Charles, Harvard guys were rowing their row-team yuppie canoes.
Any plan I could come up with, if I got caught, I’d be looking at a real bid. If I went to prison for stealing or destroying a Taxy, I’d spend at least the rest of my twenties packaging chain store coffee for forty cents an hour.
Jae was right. She was usually right. Better just roll with it. I let my breathing get deeper. Tried to relax, tried to give up.
“If you find our service useful, please consider rating us five stars on the App Store.”
Fuck this Taxy. I was getting out. Double or nothing. I started tapping out a program on my phone.
“Hey car,” I said, still writing.
“You got a name?”
“My name is Taxy.”
“What about your pronoun?”
“I prefer when others refer to me as ‘it.'”
“How do you communicate when the Faraday cage is deployed? Is your brain outside of it?”
“I will not answer that question.”
I guess you can’t play the same kinds of get-them-talking tricks on cars you can play on people. “Is your brain in the trunk or the hood?” I asked.
“I will not answer that question.”
“Are you intelligent?”
“While I am capable of adding rudimentary instructions to my own programming, I am not what could be considered a true artificial intelligence.”
“How do you make ethical decisions, then?”
“I do not understand.”
“You’re a death machine, right? You hit some dude when you’re going sixty, and he’s just walking his dog or some shit, then he’s dead and his dog, you just killed his dog too. But if you try and stop too fast, you might roll and kill your passenger. You swerve, same issue. It’s that train problem. Ethics.”
“The trolley problem.”
“Yeah, the fucking trolley problem.”
We weren’t two minutes from the bridge into Cambridge, and probably another two from there to jail. I got back into that safety harness, what was left of it, while my thumbs tapped faster on my screen than I would have thought they could go. Hoped Jae had heard me, hoped she’d sent the drone.
“In order to be legal on the road in Massachusetts, I am programmed to prioritize saving the greatest number of human lives. I am sorry if you feel I do not adequately prioritize you, the customer. I am bound by the constraints of law. But I assure you, traveling in a Taxy is nearly two thousand percent safer than if a human were at the wheel.”
I saw a quadcopter hanging over the bridge. Small, kind of uneven in its hovering. Had to be Jae’s.
“Hey, car,” I said.
“Fuck you, car.” I opened the glovebox, put my feet up on the dash for leverage, grabbed the lip of the glovebox with my pliers, and pulled. Heard something crack. I brought my foot down on the open glovebox door. Again. Again. The plastic gave out, and I jammed my phone into the crack I’d made at the back of the glovebox. Past the damn Faraday cage.
We turned onto the bridge, going fifty, and the drone got its signal.
Jae kept three phones on her quadcopters. An autonomous brain, a camera, and a redundancy that stayed off by default. Three cellular devices. That counted as three people. But only the brain was likely to be on, so Taxy here was only counting one up in the sky.
My program forced the drone to shoot down to the pavement, switching on its camera and redundancy as it went, and I clung to the harness with all I had.
Taxy swerved, and I saw the guardrail coming. Then I was weightless and there was just a wall of water in front of me. Taxy and I crashed through the surface of the river then bobbed back up before I had time to think.
Pain ran through my shoulder. It was probably dislocated.
Taxy didn’t say a word. My harness came undone, and the door lock clicked open. Emergency protocols. The safest ride in the world.
I grabbed my phone, opened up the App Store page for Taxy. Typed in a new review:
“One star. Drives you to jail.”
I opened the door, and the river rushed in. Some Harvard yuppies rowed by in their yuppie canoes, gawking.
I let my purse sink down to the bottom of the river, and swam, one-armed, to shore.